Shul lung tang, at LA Han Bat and elsewhere, doesn't make a great first impression. It's a Korean soup made from beef bones and cuts of meat, and it's bland and lacking at first, like a blurry picture of what seems like an otherwise respectable bowl of sustenance. But the offending quality -- a complete lack of seasoning -- is no accident. The soup is served alongside a small jar of sea salt that awaits on the table, with a plastic spoon for scooping. Once a half teaspoon or so is sprinkled in, the rich beef flavors in the broth quickly come into focus.
There's chili paste too, for more warmth, and a big plastic bin of chopped green onions, which should be added aggressively when the bowl first arrives, so they wilt and shrivel in the steamy broth. There's also a bowl of kimchi and pickled daikon on the table. Munched on between sips of soup, they scrub the palate and provide a welcome change of texture.
LA Han Bat, on Royal Lane in Koreatown, is the best place to become familiar with shul lung tang, and over the course of a few weeks recently, I waded my way through bowl after bowl, padded out by the occasional plate of dumplings or noodles served with what the tiny menu called "the hottest sauce." Each time, I left the shop warm and sated, but I still couldn't get to the essence of the soup, or figure out what made it so appealing. So after a particularly soothing bowl one blustery afternoon, I asked the shop's owner, Don Lee, who was working the register that day, if he would show me how it was made. He promptly took me back into the kitchen.
On the whole, Dallas' Koreatown isn't quite so easy to navigate. The collection of restaurants and Korean-owned businesses located on and around Royal Lane, with its faded signage and pockmarked parking lots, wears its age like a grandpa wears an old, tattered sweater. Some of the restaurants facing the street are easy enough to find, but many more are tucked behind warehouses, thrift shops and the occasional garden store. If you're not familiar, the only reason to visit is because someone in the know told you about a restaurant that someone else told them about. That, or you're looking for the Smoke and Vape Wholesale to stock your burgeoning new business in Deep Ellum. Sidewalks in Koreatown are intermittent and foot traffic is nil. It's like navigating an industrial lot, only with better smells.
But those who know Koreatown know treasures that others miss. Like the small temple to soup Lee opened nine years ago.
Lee spent his first year in the States operating a car wash in Arizona, but when that didn't take, he learned the art of soup making from extended family in LA. His small restaurant is just west of the North Stemmons Freeway, next to a hair salon and across the street from a lot filled with firewood. Inside, customers are invited to seat themselves. Wallpaper blankets the walls with a dizzying mosaic of Chinese and Korean characters, and a television constantly broadcasts a Korean news channel. The scent of garlic and slightly sour kimchi hangs in the air, and a cooler in the back offers bottles of cheap soju and Coors Light.
Printed on two sides, and stuffed into a small plastic stand on each table, the sparse menu offers a number of noodle dishes, and perfectly shaped dumplings filled with enough vegetables to stock a produce section and just a little pork. There are various soups, and while the kalbi tang -- a beef rib soup with plenty of mushrooms -- is a particularly good bowl, you'll likely want to start with the shul lung tang, considering the owner's devotion to the art form.
In his small and spotless kitchen, Lee told me the soup takes two days to make. A 100-quart stockpot is filled with beef and beef bones and set to a quick-paced boil. The bones (mostly knee joints) slowly break down, releasing gelatin and collagen, which gives the soup its trademark viscosity and silky mouth-feel. All the while, cooks come by and ladle any fat that has risen to the surface, so the resulting soup is lean.
Four stockpots were bubbling away when I visited, each in a different state of development. The first was only slightly cloudy, a bit like spent bath water, but as I walked down the line, the soup became richer and more opaque. In the last stockpot, the rising bubbles tossed around a slightly yellowed, milky broth, to be ladled into stone bowls with glassy rice noodles and a choice of meats.
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Out in the dining room, customers can pick between tender, sliced brisket, flank with long ribbons of yellow fat, intestines and tongue, or a combination of them all. The bowls arrive in minutes, and it doesn't take much longer (after they've cooled a little) for most diners to polish them off. This isn't a ramen house, but you'll hear slurping alongside the television chatter that punctuates extended bouts of silence. You won't hear much talking.
I've asked at plenty of pho and ramen places about how their soups are made, but I've never been invited into their kitchens. Lee was emphatic about differentiating himself from lesser shops that use powders and concentrates to make their soups. "We make everything here, except the rice noodles," he said. When I asked him how a customer could tell for sure if they were getting a made-from-scratch version, he admitted it would be very hard. But that doesn't stop him from making the soup the traditional way day after day.
On my way out after my kitchen tour, Lee met me at the door, saying he thought of one way you could tell if a bowl of shul lung tang was authentic -- the large amounts of gelatin contained in the traditional versions make for a good bellwether. Lee told me any leftover broth will set up completely if you refrigerate it, but I was unable to test his claim. I finished every bowl I ordered.
LA Han Bat 2257 Royal Lane, No. 101, 972-484-2002, lahanbat.com, 8:30 a.m.-10 p.m. daily, $$